Disabling Assisted Suicide
WESLEY J. SMITH
Just about every year assisted-suicide advocacy groups insist
that they are on the verge of their next big legalization
1998 it was supposed to be in Michigan, via a voter initiative. Early
polls showed the proposal leading by a wide margin. But when the smoke
cleared, the measure lost by a whopping 71-29 percent.
Then, in 2000, a Maine initiative was going to prime the legalization
pump and get the new assisted-suicide laws flowing. Polls showed strong
public support for permitting doctors to prescribe death for their
patients. Unlike in previous state referendums, supporters of assisted
suicide were better financed than their opponents, making their success
a likelihood. So urgent was their desire for victory that Oregon
activists, where assisted suicide is legal, even sent missionaries to
promote the measure — including then-Governor John A. Kitzhaber. Yet,
when the votes were cast and counted, Maine had rejected assisted
suicide by 51-49 percent.
The next big threat came in Hawaii in May 2002. Pushed energetically
by then-Governor Ben Cayetano, an euthanasia enthusiast, the Hawaii
house of representatives passed a legalization bill 30-20. It appeared
stuck in a senate committee when, in an unexpected tactical maneuver,
the bill reached the senate floor and passed on a snap vote, 14-11. But
the measure needed a second affirmative vote to be sent to the
governor's desk. Opponents pressed the lobbying pedal to the metal,
accelerating from zero-to-100 in less than 24 hours. The next day, the
bill failed 13-12, and the legislative session ended. A disappointed
Governor Cayetano left office and the danger ebbed.
In recent months, assisted-suicide advocates buzzed — and opponents
worried — that Vermont was going to be "the place." To prepare for the
"Death with Dignity Act," proponents lobbied the Vermont Medical Society
to drop its opposition. They were almost successful. The group took a
vote of its members and, essentially, decided not to advocate any law.
That could have helped promote passage. After all, the neutrality of
the Oregon Medical Association was key in getting 51 percent of Oregon
voters to approve assisted suicide in 1994. But it now appears that the
early optimism of assisted-suicide advocates has, again, been dashed.
Rutland Herald reported earlier this month that the bill was
dealt a "death blow" when "the heads of both the House and Senate Health
and Welfare Committees said they won't take up the measure."
All of this begs a crucial question: Why have American euthanasia
activists, who triumphed so spectacularly when Oregon voters legalized
physician-assisted suicide, been so spectacularly unsuccessful ever
since? The answer, I think, is found in the following Rutland Herald
description of what led to the apparent downfall of the Vermont bill:
The move comes after the Vermont Coalition for Disability Rights, an
advocacy group for the disabled, joined the Vermont Medical Society
and Vermont Center for Independent Living [also closely affiliated
with disability rights] in opposing the measure. It is also opposed
by the Vermont Right to Life Committee and Burlington's Catholic
Note the prominence given to disability-rights activists; ten years ago,
such a sentence would never have appeared in a media report. Then,
opponents of assisted suicide were almost exclusively (if inaccurately)
depicted as religiously motivated — even though medical, nursing, and
hospice professional organizations also almost universally opposed
This misleading stereotype aided the assisted-suicide cause; it gave
credence to euthanasia advocates' political strategy of casting their
opponents as religious fanatics seeking to impose sectarian beliefs upon
secular society. Toward this end, Oregon euthanasia activists ran a
distinctly anti-Catholic political campaign on behalf of Measure 16. One
radio ad featured an angry Oregonian accusing the Catholic Church of
"putting out garbage" about the measure and "trying to control my life."
Another falsely accused the church of imposing upon "every Oregonian"
the religious belief that "suffering is redemptive and preserving
physical life is always valued higher than relief of suffering."
After Oregon's law passed, both opponents and supporters of assisted
suicide anticipated that this demagogic advocacy strategy would
effectively break down what seemed to be weakening resistance among the
public to the legalization of assisted suicide. But then, just when the
situation seemed most bleak, disability-rights activists — who see
disabled people as the prime targets of the euthanasia movement —
powerfully entered the fray. And the tide began to turn.
In 1996 disability activists formed
NOT DEAD YET after Jack
Kevorkian was acquitted after assisting the suicides of two women with
non-terminal disabilities. (The group takes its name from the hilarious
"Bring out your dead", scene in
Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) NDY immediately made news
by picketing Jack Kevorkian's home and conducting a sit-in at the
Hemlock Society's Denver headquarters. (The Hemlock Society, like a
leopard trying to change its spots, recently renamed itself "End of Life
Choices.") Since then, eleven other national disability-rights groups
have joined NDY in opposing legalized assisted suicide, and chapters
have protested and taken other political actions against the euthanasia
agenda throughout much of the country.
The energetic commitment of the disabled-rights community, more than
any other single factor, has thwarted the assisted-suicide movement.
Because disability-rights activists are generally politically liberal,
distinctly secular in outlook, and often supportive of abortion rights,
the media can no longer caricature assisted-suicide opponents as
religious busybodies. Moreover, people who would jump head first off a
skyscraper if pro-lifers told them not to will listen to the opinions of
disability-rights activists with open minds. As a result, some polls now
show a sharp drop in the support for legalizing assisted suicide.
This "ecumenical" approach is now being applied to other issues that
threaten the sanctity and equality of human life in the U.S. The
disability-rights community has been deeply engaged in the struggle to
save the life of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who a court determined
should be dehydrated. They are also prime opponents of the neo-eugenics
that permeate the bioethics movement. They have, for example, vocally
opposed "futile-care theory," which would permit doctors to unilaterally
refuse a patient's request for life-sustaining treatment, based on the
perceived "quality" of that patient's life.
Political conservatives and pro-life advocates will not always agree
with the public-policy positions taken by the disability-rights
community, and vice versa. But both realize that they have shared
interests when it comes to some of the most important sanctity- and
equality-of-life issues of our times. The political maturity exhibited
by their willingness to work together on issues on which they agree —
without demanding that deeply held convictions on other issues be
sacrificed — is a winning political strategy. Just ask the
assisted-suicide movement: It's licking painful political wounds at the
very time it expected to be enjoying electoral triumph.
Wesley J. Smith. "Disabling Assisted Suicide." National Review
(January 19, 2004).
Reprinted with permission of National Review.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the
and an attorney and consultant for the
International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide. He is
an international lecturer and public speaker, appearing frequently at
political, university, medical, legal, bioethics, and community
gatherings across the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and
Australia. Wesley J. Smith is the author or co/author of 9 books.
Most recently his revised and updated
Forced Exit: The Slippery Slope From Assisted Suicide to Legalized
Culture of Death: The Assault of Medical Ethics in America, and
Power Over Pain.
Copyright © 2004 National